Lizz Winstead's annual review shows are a work in progress during the year.
Winstead keeps a running journal of news stories of interest -- politics, culture, local curiosities. Anything she thinks she can get some laughs out of at year's end.
This year wasn't a very funny one, a truth the New York-based, Minnesota-born comedian and writer willingly acknowledges.
She's trying to make a comedy show about... 2016?
Says Winstead: "That is, theoretically, what I'm supposed to do at the end of the year, yes."
She laughs. More than a few times, Winstead chuckled darkly, ironically, and apologized for how grim things sounded during an interview promoting Controversy 2016: The Year in Review, a two-night, three-show comedy event coming to the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, December 30. As a topical comedian and founder of The Daily Show, Winstead knows no other method but to reckon, sincerely, with the material she's given.
And in 2016 what she was given was shit.
Winstead spoke with City Pages about her show, the terrible year leading up to it, and whether we could read back any positives into the 12 months that was.
City Pages: Is it harder right now to be funny than normally? Or is it easier?
Lizz Winstead: It’s not easier for reasons of -- it’s exhausting to follow along, because there’s so much happening every day. It used to be that twice a week some asshole would say something, and then you could really craft material. And now it’s more weaving out a narrative, instead of just saying, “So and so said this, and wow, what a jerk.”
Normally when I do the show it’s like, here’s the year in pop culture… and here’s the year in politics, and here’s the year in what happened in Minnesota. And this year it’s a little bit harder, and I think people are 100 percent freaking out. I’ve already done a couple shows post-election. People were very thankful. When you relay the process of how people felt, and how people are dealing with things, that’s a very good way to lay the foundation for the actual Slurricane Trump that’s about to breach our shores.
I think it’s really fun to poke at people who are very big know-it-alls, who I never once saw out there getting people registered to vote, or doing anything. Especially being from the Midwest, when I hear people from the coasts tell me how the Midwesterners feel, I’m like, you need to go fuck yourself. I’m from a state that’s actually really involved, and active, and also unpredictable.
CP: You’ve spent some time looking back on the year 2016. Was the year as bad as it seemed? Is it possible it’s worse than it seemed?
Winstead: I think it might’ve been worse than it seemed. People forget that January 2 was when those militia people took over that federal land reserve in Oregon. So it started out with raging weirdos, who forgot to pack a lunch when they went to go do their occupation. I write throughout the year and then I assemble in December. Going back in and seeing how much I wrote aobut the media exulting Trump and giving him a pss because they didn’t take him seriously -- seeing how much of that I wrote about starting in February is really upsetting.
I think that part of it was really unbelievably hard. For me in the area of reproductive rights, watching how people ignored it completely, knowing what will become of the Supreme Court, and watching what happened in state legislatures terrified me. Now knowing how much -- this isn’t very funny (laughs) -- comes out of state legislatures, whether it’s prison reform, voting rights, abortion stuff, LGBTQ stuff, it’s a lot of stuff that’s going to come from state legislatures that are really hostile toward those things.
And then there’s the carnival that was the presidential election. And then, the splintering of folks along the way: You had the Bernie people, and then the Bernie folks that moved on to Hillary, then the Bernie folks that said “There’s no way.” And then the “Never Trump” people who seemed always to acquiesce and come around. So, there’s so much nuance that I think examining those factions is going to play a big role in the show.
CP: Because so many scary and depressing things happened, it’s possible we’re missing something. Is there an underrated terrible thing that happened in 2016?
Winstead: I would have to say the mistrial of the murder of Walter Scott. The fact that Stanford swimmer got off with a slap on the wrist is pretty unbelievable. Ryan Lochte is a pretty fucking disgusting story. The fact we have had a vacancy on the Supreme Court for 300 days is an outrage. I think those stories are really profound because a lot of that stuff is setting patterns for where we’re going. The rise of white nationalism -- or not even a rise, just the normalization of it, is an unbelievable story. And that’s been going on for a long time. For those of us that happen to be women on the internet and have been exposed to, and threatened by folks who now have the ear of Donald Trump, that’s pretty crazy.
Andrew Breitbart used to regularly troll me on Twitter -- him and his minions -- and now it’s like, oh my God, this is insane. When Donald Trump says “I get my information from the shows,” he’s not kidding. And when you look at his advisory picks, most of them are from “the shows.” And most of the shows are on Fox News. People talk about normalizing Donald Trump, but the secondary part of that is you normalize things you would not have two years ago. “Oh, Mitt Romney seems perfectly fine!” That’s actually not perfectly fine. (Laughs.) We’re defaulting to things we historically would never have accepted. So, I don’t know. (Pause.) So, so far the show sounds hilarious. (Laughs.)
CP: Who or what do you turn to when you need to get through a shitty time?
Winstead: Because I have this reproductive rights organization that is populated by comedians, and comedy writers, I get to walk into work every day, and we get to respond to what’s happening and get our ya-yas out. I have a team of people who make me laugh every day. Thank God for that. Aside from that, I turn to… where do I turn to?
I have some friends who ran Bernie [Sanders’] media machine. I turn to them a lot, because they’re always looking at ways to turn things on a dime. They make movements out of people, not money, and I talk to them a lot because I think they’re wise and helpful. And I turn to my dog, who has no judgment, and just needs to get fed and petted, and that’s something I can do every day, make that animal happy.
CP: What about something good? Did anything good happen this year?
Winstead: The best thing that happened all year happened in North Dakota, with the Dakota Access Pipeline. So, that was awesome. I think Fleabag came out on Amazon, which I really like. That made me happy. The Supreme Court ruled in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellestedt that “TRAP laws” are unconstitutional, and that you can’t just throw up roadblocks for people to have abortions. (Pause.) What else happened? What good things happened this year?
I’m trying to think, and it’s really hard. So that maybe leads to the answer of your question is this year actually worse than other years… oh! Ilhan [Omar] got elected, that happened this year. I’m excited about that. There were some women elected to the Senate, that was cool. I went to the State Fair twice. I bought the Hamilton Prince made of grain portrait, so that in my wheelhouse, is very important.
CP: Let’s get back to something shitty. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Prince all died this year. Why did this happen to us?
Winstead: I know. I know. That was really a kick in the gut because, first, when it was Bowie, it was like, “This is the fucking worst.” I’m the youngest of five kids by a lot of years. When I was probably 10, my sister played “Hunky Dory” on a loop. That record inspired me, it was just a big part of me growing up. Thank God my sisters had really good taste in music, so Bowie was this really big part of life that came into my bones.
Then Prince happened, and -- I worked at First Avenue. I hosted at the auditions for “Purple Rain,” for all the dancers, and all the extras. Prince was what got white kids in Minneapolis to meet black kids in Minneapolis, and was my favorite artist ever. That was a huge blow for me. I was sitting in the Austin [Texas] airport watching the news and I saw something happened at Paisley Park, I thought … it couldn’t be Prince. It felt crazy to not be home. Some of my best friends are from that time, and from First Avenue.
To me, second to this election, I think the death of Prince is what hit me hardest the whole year. That’s why I used that imagery for my show, because the year was one big "Controversy” after another.
When Prince died, I wrote a bunch of stuff on Twitter, about my memories of working at First Avenue. It was so fascinating to have people go like, “You don’t own him. Minneapolis doesn’t own him!” It was very interesting to watch people, and now you can, in real time, everybody gets to tell you how they feel in real time.
CP: That a good thing?
Winstead: I’m used to it. As a stand-up comic, people yell things at you onstage. Now they yell at you on the internet. I don’t give a shit. If you’re not feeding, employing me, or fucking me, your opinion is sort of secondary.
But yeah, it was kind of nuts. It will be interesting to come back and see what emotional place Minnesota’s in. I was back for the Fair, so I had an inkling about Prince, but then cut to the election, and cut to everything else, it will be interesting to see the pulse of the state.
CP: What would it take to make America great again?
Winstead: We need some kind -- people who go on cable news, that citronella collar you put on dogs to keep them from barking, every time they lie, they would get sprayed in the face. Someone needs to invent that. To separate out reality from fiction, I think, is gigantic. Emphasizing science in schools might be another way we can make America great again. I don’t think people are reading information, I think they’re watching information.
When it turns out you can get elected president by being a businessman who has clearly displayed horrifyingly sexist and racist and Islamophobic behavior, and that’s perfectly OK, I think the America that’s affected by that has to come together and realize we need to build a louder voice that can de-normalize that shit.
CP: What’s your favorite part about the rise of the alt-right?
Winstead: I’m always sort of a person that thinks that you need to see what’s out there, and not have it hiding under a rock. The fact that it’s in plain sight, I think is good. The profundity of it means it’s not something people can ignore. If I could pick one good thing about it, people can’t pretend it’s just a fringe thing, just a couple people on Reddit, or 4chan, or wherever they’re lingering.
They’re out in the world, and we can see what kind of power they have, what kind of numbers they have. So we can figure out how to outnumber them. I’m not in the mind-changing business. Sometimes I think I’m in the “Oh! I didn’t know that!” business. So, getting people reintroduced to something, reenergized to something they felt dormant about in their caring, or their activism.
CP: A lot of liberals seem to be responding to the election with a collective nervous breakdown. Is that an appropriate response? What should they be doing?
Winstead: Here’s the thing. You can have your week of freaking out, but then shut the fuck up and get up. Because the bottom line is, part of the reason why we’re here is, white people were shocked. Black people were like, “Yeah, it’s just another Tuesday, now you’re going to have to walk the earth freaked out like we are.” One thing we’re trying to do at my organization is participate and help organize -- like it’s a jobs fair, but it’s a volunteer fair. You can bring people together that are freaked out, and meet people from all different kinds of nonprofits.
Whether it’s immigration, racial justice, social justice, reproductive rights, LGBT, environment, whatever your things are, you should probably decide to not just bitch, not just give money, but roll up your sleeves. What I’m telling people is, find an organization that’s run by people that don’t look like you. So you can learn what leadership looks like for somebody with a different world experience than you, so we can really build some intersectionality in making this world a better place. If we don’t do that, people are just going to keep waking up shocked every day. I think people need to check in with themselves to ask why were you shocked? Why are you numb?
CP: Last question, and not an uplifting note either --
Winstead: I’ve been such a bummer of an interview! (Laughs.) I'm sorry.
CP: Maybe you can turn it around. Is there any reason to think 2017 will be better?
Winstead: Yeah, because now we know what we’re dealing with. 2017 might be better because people are going to participate in their own democracy. Maybe through 2016 they’ve learned they need to be louder, they need to be more vocal. Donald Trump does seem to be a person who listens to the last person that’s in his face. When we can get people who are leaders to talk to him. Al Gore talked to him. The daughter [Ivanka] had to be there, I don’t know why. Maybe she’s going to design winter tankinis because the climate’s going to be so fucked up.
It’s going to have people check in with who they are, and get people to realize their country is them. And that’s just the easiest way to put it. If you want your country to reflect you, you have to be part of that.
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